Boyte on Lakoff

I haven’t read George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, although it’s been urged on me more than once. His book and Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? seem to be the two most influential works on the left right now. Amazon says that people often buy them together. I shouldn’t criticize something I haven’t read, but Harry Boyte’s critique rings exactly true. (This is from the latest Civic Engagement News. I don’t think it’s on the web yet, but it will go here, with the past issues.)

Liberal “527” groups on the Democratic side took their cue from George

Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist who has become a Democratic guru for what

is called “frame theory,” or the idea that politics needs to convey

simple metaphors. To counter what he calls the Republican view of

“government as punitive father,” Lakoff argues that the core progressive

message is “government as nurturant parent” that expresses its care for

the citizenry through social service safety nets and regulation. In

Lakoff’s view “protection is a form of caring. The world is filled with

evils that can harm a child* and protection of innocent and helpless

children is a major part of a nurturant parent’s job.”

Government-as-nurturant-parent protects against “crime and drugs,

cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous toys, inflammable

clothing, pollution, asbestos, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases,

unscrupulous businessmen, and so on.” …

Government-as-nurturant-parent is a crisp summation of the idea of

benevolent institutions taking care of citizens through service. It also

reflects the shift of the Democratic Party’s center of gravity from

working people to professionals. Yet “service” means one thing in the

context of close-knit, personal relations in communities. In large

bureaucracies with thin transactions between experts and clients or

customers, it has an entirely different set of resonances. It sounds to

many like disingenuous self-justification. It also calls to mind the

displacement of community networks, what scholars such as Robert Putnam

term “social capital,” by impersonal ties. Ferdinand T?nnies called this

the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft.

The ideology of service means “the able” taking care of “the needy.”

But citizens are not children and many resent being conceived as full of

deficiencies. The paternalism of service politics goes counter to the

ideal of a free, self-reliant citizenry that uses government as its

instrument but is not awed by government as its savior – an ideal that

has been the wellspring of America’s democratic tradition.

In contrast, Republicans offer a politics of grievance against

government run by experts. Thus, Michael Joyce of the Bradley

Foundation declared that “Americans are sick and tired of being told

they’re incompetent to run their own affairs. They’re sick and tired of

being treated as passive clients by arrogant, paternalistic social

scientists, therapists, professionals and bureaucrats.” Such sentiments

shaped Mr. Bush’s 2004 charge that John Kerry was a “big government

liberal.” I could hear the echoes on conservative radio stations as I

drove through rural areas this fall. “The Democrats make us sound like

victims,” said one woman on a Christian radio talk show. “They act like

we can’t do anything for ourselves.”

The politics of grievance is full of dangers. It ends up weakening

government and threatening all public goods, including schools and

public universities, once understood as part of the commonwealth. Yet

there are also signs of an explicit alternative both to service politics

and to the politics of grievance.

Harry proceeds to describe the very powerful model of service politics that Colgate University has created. I heard Colgate’s Dean, Adam Weinberg, describe the Colgate model last spring, and his written description is here.

4 thoughts on “Boyte on Lakoff

  1. niq

    I haven’t read Lakoff, but have some comments to add about Frank’s book.

    First, Frank’s account is very Kansas specific. There are very few states where the pro-life cause so dominates politics. Also Kansas has perhaps the smalles minority population of any state to have had such a drastic political change in the last generation. Max Sawicky makes the point that Race may so dominate [though, evidence suggests that the Christian Coalition is ]. Also see this post:

    Frank has three main policy critiques of New Democrats: First, he is very critical of NAFTA and the Freedom to Farm Act. He makes a compelling case that these policies have decimated rural Kansas life [and probably much of rural America as a whole]. Second, he makes the point that Democrats have become more socially liberal over the past generation. He thinks that this has further alienated the working class which might otherwise be receptive to Democrats’ economic policies.

    All of Frank’s policy critiques have good points. There is good evidence that the Democrats have taken more purist positions on gun control, abortion, and particuarly the environment. It is also clear that the Dems’ definition of “middle class” is too expansive. Consider that Kerry felt he could not propose to raise taxes on a household making $199,999; by and large all Presidential candidates except Dean and Gephardt had similar lower bounds on tax cut rollbacks. To call such a household “middle class” strikes me as a bit of a misnomer; I think of such an income level as distinctly “upper middle class”.

    However, it is unclear how the Democrats can break out of this box. Ed Kilgore over at makes this point in a very matter of fact fashion: Kansas will not suddenly vote D just because Democrats come out in favor of state owned public utilities and farm collectives. They must “innocculate” themselves on values. Clinton did this very effectively on crime, when the Dr. Jekyll version of Zell Miller got up and gave his “George Bush doen’t get it” speech at the Democratic Convention. Personally I think the correct answer is to turn the rising abortion rate into an issue and pledge policy initiatives to reduce the abortion rate. After all, if Bush is so pro-life, this should concern him. This will wedge the pro-life Republicans between those who believe reducing the abortion rate through safe sex ed, contraceptives, etc., is a good moral goal and the “every sperm is sacred” crowd. As long as Bush is in office, it is difficult to believe that the social liberals who have moved more and more Democratic will suddenly abandon the party because they are talking about abortion. Likewise coming up with a set of positive [i.e. not censorship] proposals around decency in film and TV probably makes good sense. This will not be enough to win Kansas, but ought to be enough to help in Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, pad the margin in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and perhaps bring Missouri and Arizona into play.

    By and large Boyte’s critique seems to ring true for me as well. It fails to innoculate on tough-on-crime and abortion.

  2. Marcus Stanley

    I don’t think much of Lakoff; any invocation of government as parent seems dangerously authoritarian to me. His work is also as I understand it pretty out of date on its own psychological terms as well. But from the excerpt you quote Boyte seems a bit stuck in a box too. The programs most central to the traditional Democratic agenda are social insurance and regulatory programs not paternalistic social work type programs. They are indeed impersonal but precisely for that reason they enable new forms of freedom and the building of new forms of community. For example, Social Security and the elimination of elderly poverty was critical to the creation of new forms of freedom and community among the elderly that didn’t depend on immediate economic support from their children (Rv-ing, travel, senior retirement communities, etc). Likewise, government protection of and conservation of the environment has freed people to use clean, wild nature in all kinds of ways, from hiking and camping to fishing and hunting, even as it restricted market uses. Progressive taxation increases the freedom of lower income people in a very direct way (by reducing their tax burden). When you assume “big government” programs restrict freedom unless they are funneled through a communitarian vision of political participation you are basically using a conservative language that prioritizes the “natural” division of economic freedom and power created by the market.

    Boyte also seems to me to be trying too hard to jam Republican/Democratic differences into an attempt to find some kind of hidden communitarian majority. Republicans are all too willing to listen to impersonal experts on the necessity of sending their kids to get blown apart in Iraq. Or on “abstinence education” for that matter. It is not a matter of experts vs. non-experts, or authoritarianism vs. non-authoritarianism (as Boyte wants to belive) but whose experts and what authority to obey. There are perceived ways of life in conflict. Each side pushes its own form of freedom, its own form of authority, its own form of community. Opposing forms of community that enable certain specific kinds of freedom and require certain specific kinds of discipline.

    This raises some issues for civic education IMO, because as you know Peter liberalism is not always very good at building a “neutral” procedural frame that can contain genuinely differing communal visions of the good life. It would be very interesting to try to design a service/values curriculum that would fly at an evangelical college down south and a liberal arts college up north, that wasn’t just anodyne “charitable service”. I suppose this has probably been done and I just don’t know about it…

  3. Peter Levine


    Thanks for this very thoughtful comment.

    I don’t know of any service or ?values? curriculum that has been used in ideologically diverse settings. I wouldn?t be flabbergasted to learn about a successful experiment along those lines. However, I agree with your fundamental point, which is that service and other forms of civic education aren?t neutral. They imply some conception of justice and the good life. Thus we can?t obtain perfect consensus about them; nor should we want everyone to agree, for we value diversity and pluralism.

    I agree 100% with your defense of classic liberal programs. They have not been paternalistic or elitist but have actually increased ordinary people?s freedom and creativity. For example, as you say, Social Security ?was critical to the creation of new forms of freedom and community among the elderly that didn’t depend on immediate economic support from their children.? I?ve had the same conversation with Harry Boyte, and I think he?s reasonably sympathetic to your point.

    But let me defend Boyte?s more general position. He mainly argues that people should create public goods. This doesn?t require consensus; there can be lots of different and even antagonistic groups doing ?public work.? Also, creativity in the public domain doesn?t require tight social bonds. In the passage I quoted, Boyte cites the virtues of ?Gemeinschaft,” but the main theme in his work is not community but creativity. (In fact, he has launched some pretty effective criticisms of communitarianism.)

    In this context, Boyte?s interpretation of the New Deal is interesting. Such New Deal programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the WPA gave citizens opportunities to help rebuild the country. Of course, FDR wanted to give people paychecks. But there was also a serious effort to tap people?s talents and to teach them the virtues of creative citizenship. Melissa Bass (with CIRCLE?s financial support, I?m happy to say) has helped to recover the civic curriculum of the CCC, and it was powerful stuff.

    At the same time, FDR created ?anonymous? transfer programs like Social Security. These programs embodied principles of social justice, and (as you?ve noted) they enabled people to be creative. But the combination of transfer programs with participatory programs was important. While people received financial support, they were also taken seriously and given opportunities to contribute.

    No doubt, some of the New Deal?s work opportunities were demeaning or wasteful. But in his rhetoric, at least, FDR emphasized the ?common man?s? creativity. That rhetoric is too scarce on the left today. Again, I haven?t read Lakoff, but I suspect that some people who endorse him favor a more paternalistic form of progressivism that has lost the New Deal balance.

    We don?t only have a rhetorical problem. We also lack a robust set of policies that would enhance the public?s creativity. Service programs like Americorps are OK, but they are not the only, nor the most radical, ways to advance ?public work? today. I?m more interested in charter school models (perhaps used in other fields, not just k-12 education); open-source software; watershed management groups in the West; support for libraries as ?information commons?; and ways of rethinking the civil service to allow more civic entrepreneurship. I?m also interested in the way that certain private industries have supported public work. For example, the old publishing houses used to serve public purposes before they were ?streamlined? by conglomerates. I wonder if there?s some way to use public policy to support firms that consciously generate public goods.


  4. Marcus Stanley

    I made the main page! Seriously, you said in a previous email that these conversations are best conducted in person and I agree, the issues I would want to comment on are multiplying rapidly. Suffice it to say that I would distinguish two questions: one is about competent choices in the managerial role of government, and the second is about reconceiving that managerial role to create a new version of what citizenship and participation mean. I realize the divide is not quite so neat, but there is some sense there I think. Anyway, I think we are in a situation where the current leadership is badly blowing the managerial role of government — i.e. they are dangerously incompetent. This would be true even if we didn’t live in a democracy at all. I think a lot of Dem policies are much better purely on that basis, so there is a rhetorical problem in making that clear to people. Although people don’t really vote based on a policy-analytic assessment of leadership competence.

    Catch you later!


Comments are closed.